Our area’s own Ur­ban De­sign Awards

Sub­urbs may have sac­ri­ficed style for growth once but not any longer

Thornhill Post - - News - DAVID FLEIS­CHER Post City Mag­a­zines’ colum­nist David Fleis­cher is a long­time jour­nal­ist and cur­rently an ur­ban plan­ner liv­ing in York Re­gion.

From strip malls to sub­di­vi­sions, the sub­urbs of­ten get a bad rap, when it comes to ur­ban de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to cel­e­brate.

The City of Vaughan is in the midst of just that, ac­cept­ing nom­i­na­tions for its Ur­ban De­sign Awards, rec­og­niz­ing the best in sus­tain­able de­sign, her­itage projects, high-qual­ity ar­chi­tec­ture and other en­hance­ments to the pub­lic and pri­vate realms.

It’s the first time since 2012 the city has hosted the awards (they’re ac­cept­ing nom­i­na­tions un­til Sept. 22) and in­deed there’s plenty of change to cel­e­brate.

A likely win­ner is the Civic Cen­tre Re­source Li­brary which, if you live in the Thorn­hill, may be be­yond where you typ­i­cally travel. The li­brary has al­ready right­fully re­ceived lauda­tory press, and its swoop­ing ex­te­rior de­sign (al­legedly in­spired by the nearby roller coast­ers at Canada’s Won­der­land) makes it in­stantly iconic, but the inside is even more im­pres­sive. I walked in for the first time last sum­mer, shortly af­ter it opened, and it’s hard to say what was most im­pres­sive. There’s a small café, a sta­tion where you can bor­row iPads, a record­ing stu­dio, a court­yard, a sun deck, an amaz­ing amount of nat­u­ral light and al­most noth­ing (well, aside from books!) that makes it feel like the li­brary you went to grow­ing up.

Just across the park­ing lot (even­tu­ally it will be a civic square) is Vaughan city hall, it­self a huge im­prove­ment on the old con­crete bunker it re­placed. Al­though a friend and I are apt to re­fer to it as the “Vaughan Ma­hal,” it def­i­nitely helps make the state­ment that Vaughan is a city in its own right. (That said, the steps — and maybe the big­gest wheel­chair ramp I’ve seen — go­ing up to the front door drive me a bit crazy.)

Markham’s own civic cen­tre, de­signed by Arthur Er­ick­son, is nearly 30 years old, but Rich­mond Hill is on the brink of cre­at­ing a new civic district.

The hir­ing of Jack Di­a­mond to do the Rich­mond Hill Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts, not to men­tion his firm’s pre­vi­ous work on the cen­tral li­brary, demon­strates a sim­i­lar un­der­stand­ing that we de­serve our fair share of beau­ti­ful build­ings, and they both cap­ture what we’ve be­come and demon­strate how far for­ward we can still go.

Other changes to the lo­cal land­scape in­clude the new Spad­ina line sub­way sta­tions, which will start op­er­at­ing later this year. Lucky vis­i­tors have al­ready been get­ting tours, and the sta­tions def­i­nitely look im­pres­sive. The UFO-es­que 407 sta­tion seems a bit ran­dom, sure, but the Pi­o­neer Vil­lage sta­tion, at Stee­les, and Vaughan Met­ro­pol­i­tan Cen­tre ( VMC), at Jane and High­way 7, are in­stant land­marks. Some have sneered, as cyn­ics like to do, that the money spent on such bold de­sign is a waste, but when you’re bring­ing tran­sit to the sub­urbs, there’s noth­ing wrong with tak­ing the op­por­tu­nity to make a state­ment.

I feel the same way about the Viva Rapid­ways. Al­though you can fo­cus on the buses and rid­er­ship, the real key is how those canopies re­de­fine the streetscape and how the ad­di­tion of landscaping, ur­ban light­ing and bi­cy­cle lanes are fun­da­men­tally and lit­er­ally chang­ing the shape of our com­mu­ni­ties.

Both around VMC and up and down our ma­jor thor­ough­fares, high­rises are chang­ing the sky­line, some nicer than oth­ers. It’s go­ing to be a con­stant chal­lenge for our politi­cians and civil ser­vants go­ing for­ward to en­sure a high stan­dard of de­sign is main­tained, es­pe­cially af­ter gen­er­a­tions of cookie-cut­ter devel­op­ment.

Pre­serv­ing our past, of course, is just as im­por­tant as build­ing that new fu­ture.

In Thorn­hill, the his­toric Robert West House will open to the pub­lic af­ter re­ceiv­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity up­grades, and right next door, the cen­tury-old car­riage house — most re­cently a sad Mac’s Con­ve­nience Store — is be­ing trans­formed into a hand­some-look­ing pub. (Al­though they’ve been work­ing on it so long, I’m won­der if it’ll qual­ify for the 2022 awards.) Across the street, new streetscap­ing has trans­formed the side­walks through the Yonge Street her­itage district into places you might linger in­stead of rac­ing through to get to Tim Hor­tons.

From the pub­lic art and carousel in the bur­geon­ing Markham Cen­tre to the sus­tain­able Oak Ridges Com­mu­nity Cen­tre, beau­ti­ful pub­lic and pri­vate spa­ces are pop­ping up all over, and not a mo­ment to soon.

For a long time, we were com­pla­cent as our his­toric towns were trans­formed into sprawl­ing sub­urbs, but ex­pect­ing some­thing bet­ter is part of grow­ing up. So is de­mand­ing bet­ter and so is cel­e­brat­ing how far we’ve come.

Vaughan’s Civic Cen­tre Re­source Li­brary

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